Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self

  • By Annabel Abbs-Streets
  • G.P. Putnam’s Sons
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Laura Fisher Kaiser
  • March 5, 2024

Arise, insomniacs! Your alter ego has things to do.

Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self

Annabel Abbs-Streets’ Sleepless doesn’t purport to cure insomnia. Quite the opposite. In it, the author urges us to stop fighting our 3 a.m. wide-awakenings and embrace the moment. Can’t snooze? No problem! Throw off the duvet and start padding around the house. Heck, leave the house and take a walkabout. By the end of the book, Abbs-Streets has explored her back yard, the Sussex coastline, a forbidding forest, the depths of the English Channel, and even the Arctic Circle, all in a quest to conquer her fear of darkness and sleeplessness.

Her companion on these escapades is an alter ego she calls her “Night Self,” who has a “way of thinking that I liked: looser, unstructured, gauzy.” She realizes that her Night Self has always been a part of her, but “in my habitual determination to wrest as much sleep as possible from my nights, and in my zealousness for artificial illumination, I had merely blotted her out.”

She and her shadow are in good company. Together, they discover a subversive slumber party — which, by definition, involves more party than slumber — where the somnambulist sisterhood has long been doing some of its best work. Inspired by the “creative profit” of such sleep-challenged artists and writers as Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Emily Dickinson, Abbs-Streets finds herself picking up pencil and pen to doodle and versify by candlelight. She also scribbles voluminous journals, the basis for this book.

“The pencil seems to suck up my rage,” she marvels, with a hat-tip to Bourgeois, who claimed that her fury-fueled drawing sessions in the wee hours cured her own insomnia. “In the morning, I rise calm and purged,” Abbs-Streets continues. “And, yes, tired.”

Aha! I think. There’s the catch! If I were to start gamboling around in the dark to tap my creative powers and then venture outside to contemplate galaxies and glowworms, I’d pay the next day with a zombie stupor — having also roused the dog, disturbed my blissfully somnolent husband, and stubbed my toe on a table leg.

Indeed, Abbs-Streets finds the routine unsustainable, and her Night Self is soon back to brooding. She binges Sylvia Plath, whose insomniac poems might be her most brilliant but were written during a prolonged period of depression that presaged her suicide. Mindful of this cautionary tale, Abbs-Streets insists that instead of letting such stories feed our sense of dread and defeat when we can’t sleep, we can take back the night if we understand how to go about it.

And by “we,” she means middle-aged women (like me) who for millennia “have snatched time from the night — to write, paint, learn, reflect — finding a solitude, creativity and productivity rarely available during daylight…While private darkness has long been female territory, public darkness has invariably been male space.”

The idea that misogyny has made nighttime unsafe and uncomfortable for women, especially out of doors, is one of Abbs-Streets’ more provocative themes. She cites several examples of women — from entomologist Evelyn Cheesman to activist Peace Pilgrim to French author George Sand (in men’s tweeds, on her mare, roaming under the stars) — who defied societal constraints to discover that “freedom when bestowed by darkness” and “unshackled from fear…is possibly the most liberating of all experiences.”

An inveterate trekker whose previous three books of practical nonfiction, including 52 Ways to Walk, explore themes of wellness and walking, Abbs-Streets is particularly inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe and Rachel Carson, and how their night wanderings in the great outdoors heightened their senses. (Pro tip: No clothing that “rustles, chafes or squeaks.”) One night, Abbs-Streets decides to “put my Night Self to the test.” She pulls on her wellies and a coat over her pajamas and sets out along a country track, through a gate, and into a field:

“As I move, my heartbeat settles, my pulse steadies. The darkness brushes against me, like a friend. The air is pungent with night perfumes — damp sheep’s wool, bracken, flattened grass. I hear the wind snatching at the trees and the sudden scuffling of something in the hedge. I flash my torch. Nothing.”

For a minute, she loses her bearings and her nerve, but then she remembers what to do:

“I stop and look up. The moon is slender, gold, lolling on her back. Orion’s sword leans to Earth. The North Star is exactly where she should be. In seconds, my fear has fled. I turn back into the field and walk toward the trees.”

Abbs-Streets has a lovely way of putting things and comes by her anthropomorphism honestly. She is, after all, the daughter of the poet Peter Abbs, whose untimely death in 2020, along with that of her dog, set her adrift on the bleak sea of wakefulness. When my editor sent me this book to review, I felt a sense of kismet as I, too, was grieving the deaths of my own father and dog. Not to mention the profound collective bereavement that haunts us all in the wake of the covid crisis.

The author might not have set out to write a post-pandemic prescriptive, but even with her subtle weaving of scientific data into the narrative, Sleepless is about much more than coping with the loss of slumber. It’s about confronting and working our way through all kinds of loss. Despite some skepticism at the start, I came away feeling I’d found kinship with a group of incredible women and almost welcoming restless nights as “a vital place of refuge” and “oases of inner reflection.” The next time I find myself staring at the ceiling as the clock strikes 3 a.m., I just might drop in on the night ramblers and carpe noctem.

Laura Fisher Kaiser is a journalist, editor, and author based in Washington, DC. She is writing a nonfiction book about one family’s secrets, generational suicide, and self-reinvention at the dawn of the Jazz Age.

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